Making a scene

Author: Julia Zemiro
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

Entertainer Julia Zemiro notes there's little difference between working the floor and treading the boards - character, costume and props included.

The place is full. I mean heaving. It's 1989 on a Saturday night in Darling Harbour at Bobby McGee's, an American novelty restaurant. It's a place where the cocktail waitresses wear bunny outfits and the waiters dress up as popular characters and sing to the customers - whether they want a song or not.

Here comes Zorro with an armload of deep-fried zucchini. There go Alice in Wonderland and Supergirl serenading a kid and his family with "he's the boogie woogie birthday boy from Bobby McGee's". And then there's me, dressed as a "Hungarian gypsy". It was actually a "Heidi" costume, but I didn't know how to do a "Swiss" accent, so I changed it. I went by the name "Magda the Goat Herder". Genius. And no more quotation marks, I promise.

This was not a theatre restaurant as such, where you sit at long tables of 20 and far away on a stage, actors actually did a show. No, this was a restaurant where the wait-staff just happened to be characters as well. Most customers loved it, but sometimes you would approach a table with an older couple on a date, their eyes pleading: "Drop the palaver. We just want to eat." And I would. Accent gone. Order taken. But still wearing a garland of flowers in my hair and my Heidi corset.

This was a forced kind of theatre. I just love the natural theatricality in the restaurant business. It's all there without having to put on a Carmen Miranda fruit-bowl hat. It's all about setting the stage and getting ready for a performance, much like my favourite scene from my favourite movie about the food business, Big Night, about two immigrant Italian brothers who open a small restaurant in '50s New York.

The scene just before their first service is gold. One of the brothers, played by Stanley Tucci, methodically surveys the dining room, picks lint off a tablecloth, slips a piece of cork under a table leg to stabilise it and has a little apéritif before flipping the "open" sign on the door. It floods me with warmth, that scene. I love the care and precision he takes to prepare the perfect room. And then the last check out the front door, as he picks a cigarette butt from the pavement and flicks it into the gutter. Yes, now the stage is set.

I have done hundreds of stage shows and waitressing shifts in my life, and they often feel like kindred buddies. Backstage you go through your lines, double-check your props, do your hair and make-up, get into costume, then walk out to a room full of strangers and it's showtime.

Out the back of a restaurant, the checklist was similar. I would run through the specials in my head and check my props: a bottle-opener, two pens and an order pad. I'd put on my costume: black skirt, white shirt and apron, then a bit of make-up and pull back my hair. And no matter what kind of mood you were in, you came out from the kitchen into a restaurant full of strangers, and you had to be on.

Some nights a play runs like a dream. The actors are focused, the tension is right and, on this particular Friday night, with this particular audience, the show soars. In a restaurant, when service begins, it's the same. Those nights where no one crashed into each other, meals came out like clockwork, the hours flew by and tips were good. Customers were happy as they shuffled off into the night to make the 8pm performance of The Phantom of the Opera. Like Garçon!, another wonderful film portrayal of the service industry, where what seems like 20 waiters bustle in and out of the kitchen into their brasserie, dressed in their black and whites, moving like dancers in a slipstream to get to their tables. I love them. They take so much pride in what they do.

I want to be in one of those booths and have Yves Montand come to me and suggest what I should drink with my blanquette de veau. It's the '80s. They perform, they strut and it's all for my benefit. It's the theatre. It's home, much like Bobby McGee's, which, I am sad to say, died a death (unsurprisingly) in Australia. But Magda is still in the business. She now runs a dinner-and-dance-all-you-can-eat-vegetarian-goulash buffet in the wilds of Albury Wodonga. Her goats are rapt.

+ Julia Zemiro is the host of SBS's RocKwiz and Eurovision Song Contest.

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